Michael Douglas has been an entrenched facet of Hollywood going on for three decades. At 63, the venerable Oscar winning producer and actor has a different set of priorities.
While 20 years ago, he was seen in A-list blockbusters from Romancing the Stone and Wall Street, to Basic Instinct, these days, he is content to do smaller independent fare such as King of California, a kind of contemporary take on Don Quixote. Or better still, you won’t find Douglas in Hollywood but rather in Bermuda, enjoying life with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and the couple’s two children.
As we chat in the corner of a bar in the midst of the Toronto Film Festival, Douglas enthuses about how much he enjoys his new lease on life, fatherhood and a marriage that many cynics thought would never last. “I never anticipated starting a new family at this age,” a relaxed Douglas muses. “I have a seven year old son and a four year old daughter and Catherine and I will be married, going on eight years, and we’re very happy, I love to work and still continue to develop projects with my production company.”
As an actor, Douglas adds that, “I also just hope to do parts that’ll kind of challenge me or be something I haven’t done before. I like flying without a net, and taking chances which I think is one of the luxuries that you have when you have success in your career.”
One chance he took was starring in the modern parable King of California, in which Evan Rachel Wood co-stars as 16-year old Miranda, who has already had to live with her share of disappointments. Abandoned by her mother, she’s dropped out of school and has been supporting herself as an employee at McDonald’s while her father Charlie [Douglas] resides in a mental institution.
When Charlie is released and sent back to their home, Miranda finds the relatively peaceful existence she’s built for herself completely disrupted. Charlie has become obsessed with the notion that the long-lost treasure of Spanish explorer Father Juan Florismarte Garces is buried somewhere near their suburban California housing unit. Armed with a metal detector and a stack of treasure-hunting books, Charlie soon finds reason to believe that the gold resides underneath the local Costco, and encourages Miranda to get a job there so that they can plan a way to excavate after hours.
For Douglas, the appeal of the film lay in its central theme. “Madness gives you tremendous freedom, because you can go all over the place with it, though you’ve got to be a little careful about chewing up the scenery,” Douglas laughingly explains. “But I love the mix of humour and pathos, how it’s like a reflection of life and how we go through from a moment of happiness or humour to something that’s sad. I love the whole sense of reconciliation with one’s daughter, which I never had a chance to really play which was the biggest surprise for me, understanding that unique relationship.
So sometimes you’ve got to carry the storyline and sometimes you get to play the colourful part.” Douglas does see King of California as having contemporary parallels with Don Quixote. “I thought it was a wonderful take on the Man of La Mancha and I think Rachel Wood was sort of my Sancho Panza, while the second half is on this pursuit to absolutely ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’, and to fight the unbeatable foe.’ “
Douglas hopes that in this competitive movie season, audiences get a chance to see King of California “and have a great two hours. I think and hope that they’re not going to be able to guess the ending of the movie half way through it, which is the next biggest concern that I have generally in films. I hope they have a good laugh and maybe get a couple of tears or two and think about some of their own relationships and their own dysfunctional families.”
In choosing how he spends his time, professionally, Douglas says it takes a lot these days “to get me out of the house, because my priorities have dramatically changed. Career is now probably the third in order of preferences, but I’ve always enjoyed doing character work and have always sublimated myself to whatever the movie was. You do try to find a balance where you can mix up a couple of commercial pictures and hopefully work that will give you that opportunity and flexibility, so you just don’t solely drift into small, independent pictures in thirty shooting days.”
The actor, who won an Oscar as producer of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest 30 years ago, admits that Hollywood has changed over the years. “I think a lot of your writing talent has gone into television, which is one of the reasons why you don’t see as much studio driven or industry driven screenplays and scripts, because an awful lot of talent is going into television for financial reasons, and while there’s always been that little bit of a struggle between art and commerce, I do think that commerce is totally overwhelming. I was looking at the DVDs of Romancing the Stone and was reminded that in the eighth week of the release of the picture it did 72% of the opening week’s business, which is, as we know, unheard of today in the cannibalisation where pictures drop off 50% the following week. So it’s very difficult to get some air and just revive.”
Douglas grew up in the business and has seen it evolve and change having been ever present on the sets of his father’s movies, yet despite being privy to Hollywood’s evolution, he remains non-cynical about it all. “I mean there’s certainly a big advantage of being second generation in that you have a much better idea of how to conduct your life. Growing up I could watch my father with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra and you could see the foibles, the insecurities, and you could see them treat it as work rather than autographs and sunglasses. But saying that, I don’t know why anybody would possibly want to be cynical,” Douglas adds, a smile lighting up on his face.
“There’s no question that this is the greatest gig in the world, because you get to go everywhere, people are happy to see you and meet you, you get into any restaurant you want, you get artistic freedom, so – and then finally, I think it has a lot to do with not living in Los Angeles. King of California is the first movie I made in LA in I don’t know how many years and I think that’s true for a lot of people. So you don’t have that close community – more people are choosing to live anywhere they want in the world.”
While Douglas isn’t acting, he focuses on another major priority, disarming the world’s nuclear weapons through his work in the United Nations. Talking about these issues, Douglas becomes genuinely impassioned, as he admits to being optimistic “about the world having a dramatic reduction of nuclear weapons. I mean we’ve recently seen Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and other people on the right and far right, who also agree that there is no possible reason for the size of the arsenal of nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia in particular have.
So I’m highly optimistic and I think it’s going to be an issue for the voters in this upcoming election in terms of talking to their congressmen and senators that we’re going to want and demand a reduction across the board, which I think will have a strong effect on other countries being part of the nuclear club. The big concern right now with the global warming is that nuclear power plants seem to be the panacea and they’re not. We have to find ways of governing uranium so it cannot be enriched to the point where it can be of weapons grade, which I think is possible. I think there are ways to control that, so I’m generally optimistic.” Douglas insists that “all of these issues that are overwhelmed in the 21st century of global warming, population, deforestation and poverty, a reduction of nuclear weapons is something we actually can accomplish, so I think people are realising that and that could be one thing that we could knock off.”
The politically active Douglas says that speaking out on nuclear disarmament is “how I spend my time. I’m putting together a couple of speeches and touring a lot, mostly across the United States with these upcoming elections. You ask people what their biggest concern is and it is the fear of a nuclear attack.” And Douglas insists that it’s an issue that should be completely non-partisan. “This is one of those issues that I think will bring us all together. I was recently at the AARP [American Association of Retired Persons] National Convention with my father who had given a talk with Brian Williams and was overwhelmed to find out that one out of every four people who voted in the last election were AARP members.”
Douglas has also become intensely close to his legendary father, who is out promoting his latest book, Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning. Son Michael refers to his father as his inspiration. “He’s out promoting the book, it’s wonderful and it keeps him going. He will be ninety-one in December and he really is my hero, not just for what he’s accomplished – ninety pictures, but the third act of his life is as impressive as anyone I have ever known.”